The Low-Road Warrior

Illustration by André Carrilho

On the morning in March when Barack Obama was preparing to give his speech on race in Philadelphia to try to contain the fallout from the Jeremiah Wright imbroglio, I was having breakfast in Washington with a member of John McCain’s inner circle. The topic at hand was whether McCain was licking his chops at the prospect of facing Obama in the fall—whether he relished the idea of running negative against the hopemonger on questions of his patriotism and, er, otherness. My McCainiac source noted that his boss had “demonstrated admirable restraint and respect for Obama in the last few weeks,” citing McCain’s rebuke of the Tennessee GOP when it issued a press release that invoked Obama’s middle name and featured that photo of him in Somali tribal clothing, calling it “Muslim garb.” “McCain has drawn a bright line and said that’s unacceptable,” my companion said. “It’s a genuine reflex: He really wants the campaign to be civil.”

The following night I was drinking with a big-time Republican operative who’d worked during the primaries for a rival candidate. When I floated the notion of the Good McCain, this person snorted. “He didn’t have a problem calling Mitt Romney a phony in New Hampshire or comparing George W. Bush to Bill Clinton in South Carolina in 2000,” he said. “McCain is a tough guy. He’ll do whatever he needs to do.”

Until last week, it was an open question which of these visions of McCain bore a closer relation to reality. But with the weeklong string of attacks uncorked by the Arizona senator and his people during Obama’s trip abroad and in its aftermath—some brutal, some mocking, but all personal and focused on Obama’s character—we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.

As countless fact-checkers and tsk-tskers have maintained, the broadsides were a blend of distortion, innuendo, and outright slander. But that doesn’t mean they (and their inevitable successors) won’t prove effective, especially against an opponent with so little experience under ruthless and relentless fire. Before Obama hurled himself into the presidential scrum he’d never been hit with a negative ad—a point often raised by Hillary Clinton’s people. And though they made sure Obama lost his negative-spot virginity, the ads they ran against him were patty-cake compared with what he faces now. Hence the questions on which the general election may turn: Will Obama be capable of withstanding the pummeling the McCain forces have begun to unleash? Or, as Hillary privately predicted, will he crumple like a paper doll?

For those not keeping score, a quick review of the McCain campaign’s lunge for Obama’s jugular. First, its new slogan: “Country first,” with its inverse insinuation that Obama puts something else (i.e., his own ambition) ahead of the nation. Second, McCain’s accusation that Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.” Third, the McCain ad “Troops,” which claims that Obama, while in Germany, “made time to go the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops—seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” And, finally, the ad “Celeb,” with its intercut images of Obama in Berlin, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears.

The strategy behind all this isn’t hard to discern: Drive up Obama’s negatives and render him unacceptable to pivotal voting blocs. Thus the depiction of him as too young, too feckless, and too pampered to be president. (In almost every shot in the McCain ads, Obama is smiling flashily, whereas McCain is pictured as weathered, sober, staring hard into the distance—a clever bit of jujitsu, using Obama’s pretty mug against him.) Thus the portrayal of him as precious, self-infatuated, and effete: “Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand ‘MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew—Black Forest Berry Honest Tea’ and worry about the price of arugula,” wrote campaign manager Rick Davis in an e-mail announcing “Celeb.” And thus the emphasis on Obama’s rock-star persona, designed to engender envy and contempt among the swath of Middle America for which hipness is no virtue but a sign of pretension.

The racial undertones of this assault are subtle but undeniable, as Obama himself suggested when he asserted last week that his opponents are trying to make voters “scared” of him because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.” They’re most glaring in “Troops,” which features footage of Obama sinking a three-pointer in Kuwait, despite the fact that the shot took place at a military base, which undermines the ad’s argument. But the spot’s deeper aim is to foster an unconscious simile: Obama as a blinged-up, camera-hungry, NBA shooting guard, Allen Iverson with a Harvard Law degree. Am I reaching? Consider this: Would the ad have featured footage of Obama on a golf course draining a hole-in-one? “No, it wouldn’t,” laughs a GOP media savant. “The racial angle is the first thing I thought of when I saw that ad. It fits into the celebrity stuff, too.” (For McCain, that impolitic, pro-Obama Ludacris track was manna from hip-hop heaven.)

Many of McCain’s advisers from 2000, such as John Weaver and Mike Murphy, express qualms about the campaign’s newly nasty tone. (One can only imagine the sigh of relief emanating from Mark McKinnon, the heralded adman who helped McCain win the nomination but whose aversion to taking a cleaver to Obama caused him to sit out the general.) “In this kind of year—a change election, with big issues at stake—that sort of campaign is not gonna be in a voice the American people can understand,” Weaver tells me. “And at some point, John will need the goodwill that he spent years achieving.” And you think he’s in danger of losing that? “This is not a cost-free exercise,” he says.

But Weaver, Murphy, and McKinnon are no longer guiding McCain. Instead, the motor behind his operation now is Steve Schmidt, the shaven-headed strategist who earned his bones running Karl Rove’s war room in 2004, Frenchifying and de-war-heroizing John Kerry. What Schmidt and his associates have apparently concluded is that McCain’s weaknesses—on the election’s most salient issues and as a candidate—are so pronounced and Obama’s vulnerabilities so glaring that the low road is their guy’s best, and maybe only, route to the White House. They’ve concluded, in other words, that even if McCain may not be able to win the election in any affirmative sense, he might still wind up behind the big desk if he and his people can strip the bark off Obama with sufficiently vicious force.

If this sounds like an admission of a certain kind of defeat, that’s because it is. But in the prevailing political circumstances—the hunger for change in the electorate, the abject bankruptcy of the Republican brand, McCain’s positions on the wrong side of the public on the war and the economy, his age, and his pitiful performance skills—it may reflect a cold-eyed realism that’s an asset in any campaign. Moreover, at least in the short term, it actually seems to be working. Measured against the generic Democratic ballot, Obama continues to underperform dramatically. And since shifting to a more harshly negative posture, McCain has gained ground on Obama in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to recent Quinnipiac swing-state polls.

All of which, naturally, has more than a few Democrats in a state of mortal dread, although they tend not to be the types with GOT HOPE? bumper stickers on their Volvos. Making them all the more queasy is what they regard as Obama’s tepid and too-placid responses to the most scurrilous of McCain’s j’accuses. “Obama says he’s ‘disappointed’ in McCain when he charges him with near treason, patronizing him, as if he’s got a twenty-point lead with a week to go,” says one tough-minded organizer on the left. “It’s shades of Swift Boat.”

To be fair, by the end of last week Obama didn’t sound excessively serene. He had toughened his rhetoric, and so had his campaign. But even then, they were playing defense, fighting the battle on the turf defined by Team McCain. Obama’s calling out of the racial component of his opponent’s attacks, though justified, opened the door to the McCain countercharge that it’s he who is slapping down the race card—a claim that, however ludicrous, puts Obama in the position of denying, in effect, that he’s a smoother, calmer, version of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and his former pastor, Wright. What’s more, there’s reason to worry that the Democrat, as Jonathan Chait contended recently in the Los Angeles Times, is “making the enormous mistake of letting the race be entirely about him, which is the only way he can lose.”

The alternative, of course, is to get on offense, to batter McCain for his gaffes and incoherence, hammer him for his flip-flops, highlight how his maverick status is a thing of the past, and turn him into a combination of Bush and Grandpa Simpson. God knows there are those in Chicago champing at the bit to do just that—not least, one imagines, Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, who can wield the cudgel of negative ads with as much vigor and glee as any Republican. Yet Obama seems reluctant to go there. Tough pol though he is, he’s a conciliator and not a confrontationalist at heart; he seems to believe that once undecided voters know him better, he will have them eating, along with so many others, out of the palm of his hand.

And who knows, even if Obama stays above the fray, he might still pull this thing off. Because as unwilling as he is to get down and dirty, McCain may simply be unable to drive a consistent negative message. “John is uncomfortable doing this stuff,” says Weaver. “And it isn’t in his skill-set. It’s like adopting the West Coast offense and making Dick Butkus your quarterback.” Butkus, it should be noted, was a linebacker—which actually makes the metaphor more apt. Obama may hesitate to call the right plays, but he knows the difference between offense and defense, and is unlikely to wind up sprinting into his own end zone.

See Also
Heilemann on the Five Things the Audacity of Hope World Tour Taught Us About Obama
McCain’s Gonzo Attacks on Video
Is the Race Card an Ace Up McCain’s Sleeve?
Meet McCain’s Sharp-tongued New Strategist


The Low-Road Warrior